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1-2016 Election Quake I: Five Expected Surprises in Cultural Trends and the Media

This essay first appeared in the Huffington Post, November 22, 2016, http://www.huffingtonpost.com/paul-j-croce/2016-election-quake-i-fiv_b_13144442.html

Huh?—a year and half of campaigning, two leading candidates with the highest disapproval ratings in American history, a Republican Tsunami—how’d that happen?  Get ready, America, for four years of Donald J. Trump’s reverse smile. 

Few anticipated the results.  Even Republicans and Trump himself seemed surprised on election night.  Although commentators have been wringing their hands for not anticipating the way voters actually voted, observers from major media stars to people at diners and around water coolers were already calling the campaign unprecedented.  And yet, contemporary history and the current state of the media provide clues about how we have arrived at this surprising election.

1-Class Matters: The election signals the resurgence of class after a half century eclipse when race and gender attracted more attention, especially in the Democratic Party, but also among many Republicans who have been trying to play catch up since the Rights Revolutions of the 1960s.  Republicans have often seemed reluctant or hesitant about cultural identity politics while they have put more emphasis on a class politics of their own in support of the already wealthy and the enterprising.  Democrats largely did not challenge this trend, even as they added more protections for those vulnerable to marketplace dynamics.  The result has been a broad consensus for a Republican-initiated economic structure with strong globalized businesses and government programs on the defensive.  In the 2016 campaign, the most powerful and energizing voices were from a Republican and a Democrat who challenged this structure: Trump and Bernie Sanders became the voices of working-class politics expressed with liberal and conservative accents.  Politics does not have to involve either-or choices, but it often does: can the focus on class surge without slipping into prejudices on race and gender?  And will the Republicans in Trump’s White House pay at much attention to the working class as he did on the campaign trail?

2-Human Motivation Trumps Organization: A conventional wisdom has grown around the business of campaigning about the power of money and the effectiveness of organization.  This assumption has been at the heart of liberal worries about the impact of the Citizens United Supreme Court decision allowing unlimited campaign contributions.  Politics has been in step with marketplace thinking that already pervades so many parts of life.  By this logic, with the right branding, even a candidate with “high negatives” could be marketed effectively.  Hillary Clinton excited quite a few people, especially for her range of experience, her message of inclusion, and her potential to be the first woman president, but she also generated a lot of doubts especially for representing an Inside the Beltway leadership establishment.  Her campaign had the best organization in the presidential campaign, with about twice as much money and a much better “ground game” than the Trump people, but even marketing cannot erase a negative reputation.  FBI Director James Comey’s October 28 letter to Congress refocusing public attention on Hillary Clinton’s emails were most hurtful to her campaign because they reinforced an already common reputation.  Well before this October Surprise, motivation trumped organization.  For good or ill, Trump’s supporters were fired up in defiance of the establishment, despite the irony of his vast wealth.  His campaign became a movement triumphing over the mechanics of campaigning.

3-Boldness is Trump’s Brand: A bold, even brash self-presentation has been particularly important in the business world, at least since the age of Dale Carnegie, if not going back to the nineteenth-century, when the “confidence man” inspired fear and grudging respect for confident presentations that would also instill confidence in the content presented.  In business, especially in sales, looking successful has been a major step toward being successful.  In politics, confidence looks like honesty—and sometimes it is, but a strutting posture doesn’t need that virtue to play the role.  A big part of Trump’s appeal, especially for working-class voters who have felt jilted by elites, is that he presents a picture of righteous indignation, from his sharp words to his scowling demeanor.  He breaks with a decades-long trend of upbeat, smiling politicians; his trademark reverse smile screams righteous indignation.  His scowling bluntness presented the appearance of telling it like it is, even when fact-checking of his comments and their policy implications told a different story.  His brash promise to build a wall was of a piece with his demeanor; now as President-Elect, he is already dialing back the actual policies.  He campaigned as the tribune of the angry, and he looked the part.  This helps explain how he could say conventionally (and morally) outrageous things and not get hurt with a large swathe of the electorate.  For many of his supporters, these comments—and that look—showed them that he was willing to stick it to the establishment.

4-Media Attention Matters: Trump often did not have to campaign.  While many journalists likely favored Clinton or at least could not conceive of a Trump victory, Democrats have posed reasonable criticism of the media for granting Trump (free) news coverage of his shocking comments.  A food chain emerged: shocking comment gains media attention; attention leads to discussion for and against, which brings shocking comment into plausibility as a point worthy of consideration; shocking point gets subsumed into a broader discussion with the initial shock serving as a symbol of a bold position, which is attractive for its boldness with one sector of the population; this divides the electorate over the broader symbolic traits of the issue while the plausibility of the position as policy gets forgotten.  Shock sells because in a cluttered information environment, surprising facts and stories get the most attention.  This way of conveying information reduces the chances for democratic deliberation, but the scramble for public attention and with that bigger shares of the market has been the direction of media exchanges for the last few years.  The only surprise is that it has taken so long for a politician to use this approach so effectively.  Politics going forward?  It’s going to bring some wild rides; keep your eye on what generates the most attention.

5-Pollsters Call, But Who Answers?: Election watchers from polling and media organizations almost universally got this election wrong.  After the third debate, the press portrayed Trump’s campaign to be in such a “death spiral” that Saturday Night Live ran a sketch portraying Clinton confidently asking for the “election right now”; the New York Times, right through the evening of Election Day, predicted a 90% chance of a Clinton victory.  Reporters are now confessing to simply missing the story, such as Margaret Sullivan, Media Columnist for the Washington Post, who admits that “although the [Trump] voters shouted and screamed, most journalists just weren’t listening.”  Scott Trende of Real Clear Politics insists on the role of “margins of error” to defend his polling profession, but also admits to “sampling errors” in not surveying enough white working-class voters.  One cartoonist simply displayed the “O” in the word “POLLS” as a sink with the other letters slipping down the drain.  Polling issues may stretch beyond problems of sampling into an ideological challenge.  The populist upsurge that Trump (and Sanders) tapped has included a suspicion of intellectual professionals.  They perceive that many in this class operate at the behest of power brokers in business or government and with theories they cannot understand, but that may be operating in ways that undercut their interests.  The alternative pools of half-truths quite properly make intellectuals bristle; meanwhile, many who are not college educated harbor deep suspicions, especially when the information counters their common sense.  This polarization at the fountains of knowledge shows up for example in the difference between economists who have declared the recent recession technically over and workers who experience continued displacement.  These intellectual and class differences enter into the scene when a worker considers answering a poll with all its formal language; that person might very well just say … Fuggedaboutit!

Our media-soaked politics makes democratic deliberation difficult but more important than ever.  The many outrageous comments or downright false reports during this campaign show not only the ignorance of those persuaded by them (and the media’s complicity); but in addition, they also reveal the power of likely stories, broader realities unaddressed in mainstream coverage.  So in this climate, it will be important not only to track the facts, but also to remain sensitive to the wide range of human experiences that sometimes make the distorted facts seem plausible.  This does not make them right, but it does show the importance of paying attention to difference, even when ideologically unpalatable.  This will help us to keep in tune with each other—even with people who hold dramatically different position—and with the nation’s problems that sorely need addressing.

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